From riches to rags: How NFL fairytale often ends in debtors’ court

Average careers last just over three seasons meaning healthy wages often don’t last

When he finally started to sift through bank statements, Trent Richardson didn't need a forensic accountant to figure out something was up. There were 11 Netflix accounts even though he never signed up for one. Then the myriad payments for "bottle service" at upmarket nightclubs, curious purchases for a man who doesn't drink. By his reckoning, in a 10-month spell, friends and family spent $1.6 million of the money he was earning as an NFL running back. A startling sum that highlighted once more the unique financial challenges facing many in the sport.

Seven years ago, Sports Illustrated conducted a groundbreaking investigation that claimed 78 per cent of NFL players went broke or suffered severe money problems within two years of retirement. Last summer, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a detailed study in which it found 16 per cent of those drafted between 1997 and 2003 (which means they were the very best professional prospects) declared bankruptcy after their careers ended, some more than once.

Stratospheric salaries

When the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers kick off the new season amid so much televised fanfare tonight, the least-paid players on the field will be drawing down just under half a million. Most of the solid journeymen are trousering at least twice that sum. While these numbers are a long way from the stratospheric salaries of the biggest stars (Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is on $20 million a year), those are still tidy wages. Except the average career lasts just over three seasons, meaning that earnings tend to go off a cliff pretty fast.

In reality, the pecuniary problems start much earlier than that and it’s those who earn more that often encounter most difficulty. As the number three pick in the 2012 draft, Richardson signed a four-year $20.5 million contract with the Cleveland Browns. Life-changing money for a kid who grew up in the maw of poverty in the Florida panhandle. He was expected to use it to elevate the circumstances of dozens of others in his orbit. In a typical move, he put his brother Terrell on his payroll at $100,000 per annum but his real issue was he couldn’t say no to friends and extended family “in need” of loans that were, in almost every case, merely five figure hand-outs.

"An agent must deal with what I call 'the herd' when taking on a player, which can include (but is not limited to) parents, siblings, cousins, advisors, friends, wives, girlfriends, and wives and girlfriends," wrote Andrew Brandt, a former agent. "While it is hopeful to think that their intentions are always in the best interest of the player, they are often in the best interests of themselves. And if the player does not support family or friends, financially and emotionally, he is often seen as turning his back on his past."

While Richardson (who is now without a team) believes he sorted his affairs out in time, just when his career happened to be nosediving, long and colourful are the yarns about those who ended up blowing fortunes. In his pomp, Vince Young, the one-time quarterback with the Tennessee Titans, who squandered $26 million, used to splurge an estimated $5,000 a month at the Cheesecake Factory.

With career earnings touching $82 million, Warren Sapp claimed his bankruptcy four years after his final game was due to a construction investment gone wrong. But the fact he owned 240 pairs of Nike sneakers point up other parts of his life where he was profligate, something borne out by a lifestyle so extravagant he couldn’t subsist in retirement on a salary of $1.2 million as a television analyst.

After earning $43 million during nine years in the league, Clinton Portis retired in 2012 and filed for bankruptcy last Christmas declaring he had just $150 in his bank account. Aside from stiffing a mortgage company for over a million and various car dealerships for significant amounts, his list of creditors included the IRS ($390,000), MGM Grand Casino ($287,178) and four women who were owed a collective $412,000 in unpaid child support. Gambling, tax and alimony issues are staples when explaining high earners crashing to earth.

In recent years, the NFL has taken preventative steps to try to stop so many alumni from ending up in debtors’ court, even instituting a finance boot camp where former and current players are advised about how best to capitalise on what is, essentially, a very short, lucrative career. Icons who have frittered away tens of millions are brought in to tell their tales of woe in the hope the horror stories of repossessed houses and spurious investments will dissuade the current generation from making the same mistakes.

Financial strategies

Not as easy as it sounds. These are men in their early twenties, many from poor backgrounds, suddenly flush with more money than they ever dreamed of. For most, thinking long-term financial strategies is as big a struggle as saying no to relatives begging for cheques.

“It’s just one of them moments where I was just blinded by my heart, by loving everybody and thinking that everyone was for me,” said Trent Richardson. “I know they love me. I know they do care. But at the time, they took advantage of it.”

The crux of the issue.